Notorious international terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez a.k.a. Carlos the Jackal came to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s with several politically-motivated bombings, kidnappings and hijackings in Europe and the Middle East. He eventually became a popular culture icon with thinly-disguised depictions in films like Nighthawks (1981) and gracing the cover of Black Grape’s debut album. His image was used as a cultural touchstone rather than an accurate depiction. Incredibly, it wasn’t until Olivier Assayas’ ambitious, five-and-a-half hour miniseries Carlos (2010) that the man and his times were finally done justice. Assayas wisely doesn’t pass judgment on Carlos but rather depicts how he influenced the political climate and how it, in turn, influenced him. Far from a stuffy history lesson, Carlos is an epic political thriller with a charismatic performance by Edgar Ramirez as the infamous terrorist.
Carlos is presented in three, feature-length episodes that track his rise to power and notoriety; the man at the peak of his powers and his greatest triumph; and his inevitable decline and capture. Early on, Assayas establishes his take on Carlos (Ramirez), presenting him as a vain man who, at one point, is seen admiring his own naked body in a mirror to the strains of “Dreams Never End” by New Order. We also see him espouse his personal philosophy, that true glory is “doing one’s duty in silence. Behind every bullet we fire, there will be an idea because we act in harmony in our conscience.” And initially, he seems to adhere to this but once he becomes a superstar among international terrorists, he embraces and cultivates his inflated reputation.
In the first episode, Assayas shows Carlos’ clumsy attempts to impress Wadie Haddad (Ahmad Kaabour), co-founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), with a bungled assassination and a failed bombing. This segment builds towards an intense showdown between French domestic intelligence agents and Carlos at one of his girlfriends’ apartment in Paris where we see just how dangerous he is when cornered. The second episode starts off literally with a bang as Carlos and his group arrives at the OPEC headquarters in Vienna and take oil ministers from all over the world hostage in 1975. This was his highest profile operation done at the height of his powers.
By the end of the second episode, Carlos has been kicked out of the PFLP and he starts up his own terrorist organization, effectively becoming a mercenary. The third episode tracks his inevitable decline as he wages a war of terror on France in the early to mid-‘80s after they arrest his wife and a close associate. It’s costly battle for both sides but more so for Carlos who can no longer rely on his reputation to get jobs or find safe haven in countries that used to be sympathetic towards him. He becomes more vulnerable to attacks because he has more to lose, chief among them a family.
Edgar Ramirez’s magnetic presence really comes across early on as he exudes the cocky confidence of the man and conveys his complete commitment to the cause he espouses so brazenly. The actor has Carlos’ terrorist swagger down cold, showing us the smooth ladies’ man with his perfectly coifed looks and stylish attire. Known prior to Carlos mostly for his strong supporting turn in Tony Scott’s Domino (2005), he finally gets to be front and center, playing the role of a lifetime: a larger than life historical figure in a sprawling epic. Assayas and Ramirez’s fascinating take on Carlos is that he viewed himself as a kind of rock star, a charismatic personality who clearly saw himself as someone of importance, destined to do great things. This is evident in the way Carlos idolized and emulated Che Guevara during the OPEC raid, sporting the iconic revolutionary’s trademark beret and scruffy facial hair look as if making a statement. Also, the rock star analogy is further explored in the use of post-punk music along with the third episode, which could be seen as Carlos’ “fat Elvis” period of decline. Ramirez commands every scene he’s in, especially the OPEC raid where he prowls around rooms and hallways, expertly orchestrating this attack in order to get what he wants.
In an intriguing break from tradition, Assayas eschews a traditional orchestral score for source music, predominately post-punk rock. The opening track is “Loveless Love” by the Feelies, which sets the tone of the film. As the song builds so does the tension of the scene it plays over – that of Carlos attempting to assassinate a pro-Israeli businessman in England. Assayas also uses a few tracks by Wire, one by A Certain Ratio and a memorable action sequence scored to “Sonic Reducer” by the Dead Boys. The attention to period detail and architecture is also excellent as Assayas takes us on a perverse travelogue through Europe and the Middle East with Carlos as our guide.
With its color-coded sequences and its objective direction that is slick and confident, Carlos resembles Traffic (2000) and Syriana (2005). These films are all ambitious and expansive in scope as they expertly blend personal politics with bigger political movements. Carlos is a towering achievement, a fascinating study of a man who was a reflection of the times in which he lived in and is embodied by Ramirez’s powerful performance spanning several decades. Assayas’ film is very relevant to our times as it examines the complex machinations of international terrorism with the agendas of terrorist groups clashing with that of the governments of countries all over the world. Carlos sees the struggle of the oppressed against imperialist regimes as a war that he helps fight. With the end of the Cold War, he is marginalized and considered a relic from a bygone era. Assayas has crafted an incredible film that is smartly written, well-acted and masterfully directed.